by Osama Al aloulou*
Since the start of the UN-backed and American-Russian-led peace conference over Syria – Geneva II – high stakes and low expectations have dominated the big picture. The long-awaited talks between the Syrian regime and the opposition (dominated by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC)) seemed to be on the brink of unraveling before they even started when UN chief Mr. Ban Ki-moon issued an invitation to Iran to take part in the talks. The following 24 hours raised controversial tensions among most of the participating parties. Later, Mr. Ban Ki-moon withdrew the invitation after the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott the conference, as well as due to pressure from the United States and other parties.
The justification, according to Mr. Ban’s spokesman, for the last-minute withdrawal of the invitation, was that the Iranian officials have shown no desire to accept the outcomes of the UN Geneva I conference in 2012 which called for a transitional administration to take over power in Syria, something which was not convenient for Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime. Such an incident highlights the complexities and constant strife between the actors involved in the Syrian military conflict. The first round of the conference is over and there has been no concrete progress. The two parties returned to Geneva on Monday 10 February 2014 to resume the talks, however, the conflict on the ground is still running and the second round of talks has shown very little progress so far. It is, however, worth mentioning that one of the minor successes of the first round of talks was the decision to evacuate people from the city of Homs. However, after the start of the decision’s implementation, dozens of these people have been missed. It could be argued that this leads to uncertainty over the conference’s credibility.
|cartoon by Patrick Chappatte for the International New York Times|
The Syrian crisis started with peaceful protests which were met by brutal confrontation by the regime. The following stage, and more precisely after six months of protests, the crisis took another shape. An armed conflict took place between the regime’s army and protesters began, with the help of soldiers defected from the official army, to possess weapons to meet the brutality of the regime. Later on, the armed conflict started to be enhanced by foreign intervention (in particular by Russia and Iran supplying the regime with military technical equipment and armed men).
However, the answer to the question as to whether Mr. Ban Ki-moon made the right decision when he sent an invitation to Iran to participate in the talks is an unpretentious “no”, because Iran’s political support for the Syrian regime – which includes technical, financial, and most significantly combat support – is still functioning at the time of writing. Without Iran’s encouragement of Assad’s mercenaries and Hezbollah (Iran’s best ally in Lebanon), the situation might be less horrific.
A logical question might be whether or not peace will be reached in Syria with the exclusion of Iran as a crucial player in the conflict? Iran has to be stopped from supplying the Syrian regime, and perhaps the West is the only power that is able to put pressure on Iran and stop her from intervening in the crisis.
Despite Russia’s robust support for Assad, the conference could not have existed without Russian agreement. Russian participation in the conference is a must. However, Iran’s opposition to the Geneva I accord makes its participation less essential, and the conference could indeed have run without Iranian participation.
Beyond doubt, the other minor successful aspect of the American-Russian-led negotiation for peace in Syria in Geneva is bringing the rivals to the same room. But one would say that there will be almost no genuine negotiations.
The primary reasoning is that the regime’s delegates came to Geneva to seek international assistance for fighting terrorism and they do not recognise the Geneva I accord which calls for a transition of power. Plus, the members of both delegations are not actual representatives of the opposing sides. On one side, the regime´s position in the war is not more than a symbolic one, because Russia and Iran are the masters who have the final word. On the other side, the SNC does not have a strong support from either Syrian civilians or armed Syrians. A large number of the anti-Assad fighters are Mujahedeen who come from various countries. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), which works almost independently without the SNC’s coordination, does not accept the decisions taken by the SNC. Both sides, the Mujahedeen, and to a certain degree the FSA, do not recognise the SNC either virtually or ideologically. In other words, both sides have a lack of legitimacy, and it is almost impossible for them to be monolithic or reach mutual decisions.
Thus, we are still confronted with the question as to whether the Geneva II talks will bring an end to the Syrian conflict.
At present, there is no potential choice for Assad to surrender power; he did not do so a year and a half ago when he appeared to be losing power on the ground, and he is not going to do so now after his latest victories. When looking at the other side, we find an enormous division between the political (the SNC and the rest) and the military (the FRS, Islamic state of Syria and the rest) opposition. Roughly 58 out of 75 the SNC members voted for participation in the Geneva II conference, even though some of those 58 members voted pragmatically, responding to the wishes of their backers who wanted them to do so. This makes the picture more complicated.
The chances for success at the Geneva II conference seem weak, and by looking at the stance of both parties – what they think, how they look at one another, and the way they view the continuation of the war – we must conclude that it is difficult to foresee any prospects of peace or even stability in Syria.
The above may convey a sense of impossibility of reaching peace in Syria by negotiation, however, politics might bring the unexpected, and the failure of the Geneva II talks should not be the immutable conclusion.
Osama Al aloulou is a masters student at both the Sociology Department at the University of Eastern Finland and the Institute for Human Rights at Åbo Akademi University, Finland. He also works as a freelance columnist. He can be contacted by email.